Biography of Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston was an American author, anthropologist, folklorist, and filmmaker. She was a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance, a period of cultural revival of African American literature, music, dance, theater, politics, art, and fashion that took place in the 1920s and 1930s.

Hurston was born in the small town of Notasulga, Alabama. She was the fifth of eight children in the Hurston household. Within a year of Zora's birth, the family moved to Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated Black municipality in the United States.

Hurston's mother died when Hurston was thirteen. Her father and new stepmother sent her to a Baptist boarding school in Jacksonville. Hurston later attended Howard University. Although she spent nearly four years at Howard, she graduated with only a two-year Associate's degree, having spent most of her time at Howard writing. Beginning with a college publication, and then branching out into writing contests in newspapers and magazines, the early 1920s marked the beginning of Zora Neale Hurston's career as an author.

In 1925, as the Harlem Renaissance was establishing itself, Hurston moved to New York City. She enrolled in Barnard College to study under Franz Boas, an important founder of American anthropology. While there, Hurston married her boyfriend from Howard, Herbert Sheen, but the marriage was short-lived. After graduation, Zora returned to her hometown of Eatonville to collect stories as material for her blossoming writing career. In the late 1920s, Hurston published several works and gained financial sponsorship from wealthy New York patrons.

The 1930s and early 1940s, Hurston completed graduate work at Columbia, published four novels and an autobiography, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. She traveled to the Caribbean, where she became intrigued by the practice of voodoo and she began to incorporate supernatural elements into her novels and stories. Around 1950, Hurston returned to Florida, where she worked by cleaning houses. After a slew of unsuccessful career changes, including newspaper journalist, librarian, and substitute teacher, Hurston became a recluse. She suffered a fatal stroke in 1960 while living in a care home.

Hurston's novels went largely unrecognizing by the literary world until there was a renewed interest in her work in the 1970s. Hurston's contemporaries in the Harlem Renaissance, such as Richard Wright, criticized Hurston's use of African-American dialect in her fiction. Wright believed that her use of dialect was a caricature of Black culture rooted in a racist white tradition and accused Hurston of trying to appeal to the chauvinistic tastes of a white audience. Hurston has also been criticized for sensationalist depictions of voodoo in her writing.


Study Guides on Works by Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon is one of the latest additions to one of America’s oldest original literary genres, the slave narrative. This genre stretches from those published before the off-anthologized Interesting Narrative of the Life of...

Jonah’s Gourd Vine is a testament to the commitment of needing to write and a slap in the face to every author who still can’t finish a novel despite writing on a computer while seated at a large desk. This narrative was Zora Neale Hurston’s first...

Mules and Men is a collection of African-American folklore by African-American author Zora Neale Hurston published in 1935. It features a variety of stories that Hurston herself collected by making trips to Florida and New Orleans (places notable...

"Sweat" is a short story by Zora Neale Hurston, published in 1926. Hurston was "a product of the Harlem Renaissance," an African-American political and artistic movement that took place in Harlem, New York in the 1920s, "as well as one of its most...